Rich Burton, a Minneapolis sales rep, filled his Chevrolet Suburban with E85 at a Mobil station before heading to South Dakota on a sales call. Just under 23 gallons cost him $69 at $2.87 per gallon. Regular unleaded was $3.52 that morning.
There's a political cartoon making the rounds on editorial pages and websites: A well-fed guy, filling a very big car with ethanol, is shrugging at a small child with a distended belly and empty bowl.
The image is part of the growing "food for fuel" criticism that blames ethanol for food shortages and high prices on basics from rice to wheat. Meanwhile, the ethanol industry has gone on the defensive as well. Corn growers and renewable fuel advocates have been running full-page advertisements and holding press conferences defending ethanol.
Caught in the middle are Minnesota drivers who -- depending on whom you talk to -- are either friend of the environment or enemy of the hungry.
Minnesota's decade-long experiment with the fuel makes it ground zero for the ethanol movement. The state has 22 percent of the country's nearly 1,600 pumps dispensing E85, the highest-blend ethanol fuel, with 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. And "flex-fuel" vehicles, which can run on E85 or gasoline, also have been increasing. An estimated 175,000 flex-fuel vehicles are registered in Minnesota, up about 25 percent from two years ago, according to the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest, an ethanol industry supporter.
But many flex-fuel drivers aren't deciding which fuel to pump based on current events. What sways them is price, according to about two dozen Minnesota drivers and station owners. With gasoline reaching a record high above $3.50 a gallon, and E85 roughly 50 cents less, ethanol often gets the business.
"Our volume goes up every time there's a quick increase over a meaningful threshold -- first $3 and now $3.50," said Jared Scheeler, head of operations at Bobby and Steve's Auto World in downtown Minneapolis. Scheeler estimates that his station sells about 350 gallons of E85 a day, up from one fill-up a day when it introduced the fuel 10 years ago.
Because vehicles burning E85 have lower fuel economy -- estimates range from 5 percent to 30 percent less -- it's not just a matter of price at the pump.
Mark Necklen of Hugo calculated that gasoline ultimately is cheaper to run in his 2007 Grand Marquis. At one recent fill-up, regular was $3.50; E85 was $2.70, but it would have to be $2.59 to correct for the lower mileage, he said.
"I believe in a market economy," said Necklen. "If it were equal, I would want to support it, but it's not."
Political winds change
Minnesota, which requires that every gallon of gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol, has been a leader in E85, starting with U.S. Department of Energy support 10 years ago, said Tim Gerlach, vice president at the lung association. Sales have grown every year, doubling and even quadrupling some years. As recently as 2006, sales more than doubled to 17.9 million gallons, up from 8 million in 2005. Growth slowed last year, to 21.4 million gallons.
At the same time, E85 stations in Minnesota grew to some 350, nearly double 2005 levels. Growth probably will slow, at least partly because of the same credit-market problems hitting other construction, predicted Todd Taylor, an attorney at Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis specializing in renewable-fuel projects.
An increasing amount of the state's corn crop goes into ethanol: about 27 percent this year, up from 15 percent two years ago.
In Washington, which has largely driven much of ethanol's rise with heavy subsidies, there's a growing backlash to the biofuel. The current 51-cent-a-gallon ethanol tax credit has been cut to 45 cents a gallon in the farm bill passed by Congress late last week. (The White House has threatened a veto.) A renewable fuel mandate passed in December requiring that 36 billion gallons of ethanol be used by 2022, up from 9 billion this year, and already some legislators are crying foul. About two dozen Republican senators, including John McCain, are urging the Environmental Protection Agency to lower the targets, if not repeal them.
University of Minnesota economists have said the corn in 25 gallons of ethanol could feed one person for a year.
By the numbers
But at E85 pumps around town, drivers filling up -- when they can be found -- are more muted. It's not that they're unconcerned about the hungry. But they also care about clean air, energy independence and supporting Minnesota corn growers. So, it's often a wash for their politics.
Some drivers are drawn to E85 pumps because of the price difference. "Twenty gallons. Eight bucks cheaper to fill your tank. That adds up," said Ryan Yingling, manager at Hansen's Auto Service in Duluth.
At the Frontier Tesoro in Fergus Falls, Minn., bookkeeper Ginger Rapp said a 40-cent-a-gallon difference is the tipping point for customers.
"When our ethanol is less than 40 cents a gallon cheaper, our sales drop," said Rapp, who said her station's March sales over the past several years have stayed steady at 8,000 to 9,000 gallons.
Taylor saw one woman put E85 in her Volvo, even though it wasn't a flex-fuel car.
"She said that she didn't care, that it was cheaper and she was going to use it," he said.
Rich Burton, a salesman who drives 75,000 miles a year for Langford Tool and Drill in Minneapolis, just started an ethanol test on his 2002 Suburban. After three tanks of around-town driving, Burton's math showed E85 cost him 20 percent less but cut his mileage by 25 percent. But driving the highway to and from Sioux Falls, S.D., his mileage dropped by less than 10 percent.
"Maybe I'll use regular gas around town, and E85 on the highway, considering I can do both," Burton said.
Corn to eat or burn?
Not everyone believes the rising price of corn -- around $6 a bushel, nearly double from just a year ago -- is contributing to world hunger. Larry Danielson, a corn grower near Montevideo, mostly blames the rising price of oil, which makes farming, food production and food transportation all more expensive.
Danielson also pointed out that corn does double duty at a nearby ethanol plant, because its residuals account for up to 25 percent of what he feeds his cattle.
He has used only E85 since he bought his first flex-fuel car in 2005.
"I can see other people buying by price only," he said. "But this is my way of making a statement, to lessen our dependence on foreign oil with a home-grown fuel. That's my primary reason."
H.J. Cummins • 612-673-4671